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  • Writer's pictureHelen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Feeling Overwhelmed? Check your Window of Tolerance

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

Ever get that feeling that if one more thing goes wrong you're going to either explode or burst in to tears? That's a sign your window of tolerance needs some help.

#WindowOfTolerance is a now a widely used term first introduced by Dr. Dan Siegel, a UCLA psychiatry professor, author, psychotherapist and all around pretty amazing guy. The idea being that we all have a window, or a zone, that we can operate within at an effective level, we can respond to challenges, process information, evaluate situations and manage everyday life. When we are operating outside of our window of tolerance - usually during times of stress, tiredness, hangryness etc. then we find ourselves becoming more easily overwhelmed and this can cause either #hyperarousal (panic, anger, anxiety) or #hypoarousal (dissociation, numbness, freeze response). In both states we are unable to access our “good brain” our prefrontal cortex and so we can’t see logic or reason or even find language to express what we feel.

Window of tolerance explanation with what happens inside and outside of the window.

Some folks may just have a smaller window of tolerance. Adverse experiences in life and trauma can shrink our window of tolerance because our brain is trying a little harder to keep us safe and so wants us to tolerate less so that we are ready much quicker to go into fight, flight or freeze. A smaller window of tolerance means that we will be more reactive to real, or what is quite often, perceived danger - a trigger, or stimuli that has reminded our brain of a traumatic incident or painful memory from perhaps many years ago and our brain desperately tries to protect us from it happening again.

The good news is by being aware of your own (and maybe your partner’s) window of tolerance, we can manage it a little more effectively.

How big is my window today?

By checking in with yourself:“how big’s my window today?"you can tell if it might be time to take a break, do an activity that will help to regulate your nervous system and widen your window. Techniques such as grounding exercises, breathing exercises, self soothing, music, petting your dog, whatever it is that can help us regain calm. Finding out your own ways of self-regulating is really important, especially for folks who have experienced trauma and if it’s difficult for you to figure this out, try a few different things, see what fits and if you go to counselling - your therapist can help!

If you have any questions I would love to hear from you:

For today, check in with your own window of tolerance and see how wide yours is :)

Helen Whitehead

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